Legend of the Exile, Chapter 44: Ivory Mountain
To uphold this timeless legacy
I surpassed the gates of reality
Death's hand has no claim upon me
For dreams are shining at my side
"Grah!" yelled Thalia as she tripped over Lane's foot and hit the ground. All around her, the east training field echoed with the grunts and shouts of sparring Retrievers. "I'm usually better than this," muttered the Leafeon as she got to her paws, frustrated with herself. "Sparktail? What do you think I'm doing wrong?"
On the edge of the clearing, Sparktail looked away. He thought perhaps her stance was too open, but it'd been too long since he actually thought about form. And it felt too odd to give Thalia advice with swords, when she still had swords and he didn't.
"Your movements are too predictable," said Lute as he padded towards the Leafeon and the Sneasel. "You move in to attack, then move out. An effective strategy, but you have no defensive maneuvers, so it leaves you open to attack when you move in."
Thalia turned her back to the Absol. She didn't want to hear this from him. Leafeons were as sturdy as oak! At least, she could endure long hikes, but... the Murkrows at Mount Chimney had made quick work of her. Sheltur and Wyrn, on Lilycove's beach. She needed to overcome this newfound fear of death, without sowing needless death herself. The precarious balance of the wild. "Easy for you to say," she muttered. "You were born like this."
"What're you doing here?" asked Sparktail, frowning at the Absol. Lute was in charge of the training field, yes. But rumors traveled fast. Some said the Absol was waiting to steal a certain Leafeon away. It seemed unfathomable that Lute would hurt Thalia again. But, could he really leave his mate alone with the Absol?
"Calm down, you uppity rodent," said Lute, meeting the Raichu's eyes with his predatory gaze. "I'm actually here for you, anyway; the war council's summoned you. But don't worry, I'll watch your lovely Thalia for you. We'll do some special training--"
They both glared as the long-horned Absol stepped next to Thalia with a sly grin, until she could feel his hot breath and his soft white fur. War council was waiting. "Don't even think about it," she warned, raising her blades. "Sparktail--it's all right. I'll handle him."
Still frowning, Sparktail turned and padded away. Sighing, Lute watched the Raichu leave the training field, then tilted his head and gave Thalia a lick. "What is wrong with you?" said Thalia angrily as she spun around, bringing her blades to Lute's throat. "I can still kick your ass, you know--"
The Leafeon went silent. The mischief was gone from the Absol's eyes, replaced by hardened discipline. As if splashed with ice water, she suddenly felt as if she was looking at a stranger. "Special training has begun, Retriever," said Lute sternly. "Lane, what's her sparring record?"
"She's got three losses, seven wins," said Lane from the sidelines. Amused, the Sneasel watched as Thalia and Lute took their places on opposite sides of the battle ring. "That Raichu of yours is easy to rile up, Thalia... but for that matter, you're even more so."
The war council had taken up residence in the Sootopolis command center. Once the city's training gym, it was an intimidating building on a lonely island in the middle of Lake Helena, its scorched-but-standing walls a relic of Hoenn's final days.
Stepping down from a Lapras' back, Sparktail padded through the double doors and into the steel complex. He hadn't realized how much he missed the weight of his sword and the feel of his leather scabbard until now.
The Raichu had a vague memory of the building's layout. As an Elite, Slick had played a key role in the city's defenses, and Sparktail had wandered the building in the spare hours. Perhaps, if he ever needed to, the Raichu might be able to find his trainer's old office.
After several corridors and turns, Sparktail reached the war room, a large chamber with simple steel walls. There were eleven Pokemon seated around the long conference table: Rush, Torrid, Insyte, Lyther, a Breloom, Shock, an Azumarill, a Mightyena, a Skarmory, Altaria, and a Dragonite. The Raichu froze as the entire assembly turned to look at him.
"Hello, Sparktail," called Rush from the forefront of the table--Champion Steven's seat-- finally breaking the silence. "We're just getting started, so you're not too late." The other Pokemon chuckled grimly as the Raichu stared at them, noting a strange look of wisdom in many of their eyes.
"You know most of them already, but let me formally introduce the council." Each one stood as Rush named them. "Captain Torrid, representing Lord Hephaestus of Lavaridge. Lord Insyte Faldsem of the Vulcanite. Lyther del Rio of the Silver Conclave. Captain Shock of the Wild Alliance. Captain Foam of Ecruteak. Sir Heroc of Petalburg. Captain Alpheral of Mauville. Admiral Ector of the Iron Fleet. Altaria of the Sky Pillar. And lastly, Guildmaster Roathaus of the Swordwrit."
Roathaus smiled grimly as Sparktail stared at the immense blade on the dragon's back. The Dragonite's sword was a polished black blade with streaks of silver and red, over three feet long, a sturdy handle wrapped in strips of well-worn leather. This must be Lute's master...
Still staring at them, Sparktail instinctively reached back for his sword-that-wasn't-there. All of the council members seemed to be key individuals in the Retrievers' ranks. But Sparktail wasn't a tactician or a leader; he didn't even have a weapon now. What was he doing here?
Heroc cleared his throat. "Let's get started," said the Breloom. "Sparktail, you were with Shock's patrol for the last two months, beginning on the 10th of December, correct?" Shock looked pleased as the Raichu nodded. "Describe your experiences. starting with your landing at Slateport."
The Raichu froze, his paws growing sweaty and his heart racing. He had to talk in front of all these Pokemon? Now? He took a deep breath, but couldn't compose himself. Should he be speaking to Rush as an old teammate or a commander? What sort of status did he have? Was he on trial? Why did they pick him?
The Raichu stammered through their arrival at Slateport. "Speak up, son," called Torrid, raising a hand to stop him. "We can barely hear you." A few others murmured agreement.
Tactics, the enemy's tactics. Staring at the council, he tried to relay his memories of each city: Littleroot at peace, Oldale in isolation, Fortree's infestation. Mesprit at Verdanturf, Blusabre at Lilycove. It was slow and frustrating, and the Raichu was irritated at his own insecure, faltering voice. Though the council listened politely, he was sure they were losing their patience.
"It is acknowledged that you have some measure of expertise with weaponry," said Roathaus when Sparktail mentioned the armed soldiers at Lilycove. "Based upon your own level of expertise, how would you rate your enemies' skill levels? Consider form, style, and efficiency."
Unable to stop his tail lashing at the floor, Sparktail tried not to panic. How could he possibly assess the other side's skills in the heat of battle? He thought back to Lilycove, but only stirred images of Mythic, of Mesprit and Uxie, of Omega, of the Zangoose who saved his life in Verdanturf.
He looked back at Roathaus, trying not to buckle beneath the sheer power in the Dragonite's hardened eyes. "I don't know," said the Raichu, heart pounding. "It all happened so quickly... I was focusing on staying alive." Then he added hastily, "Sir."
Several Pokemon snickered while Roathaus gave Sparktail a look. The Raichu flinched, realizing he must have sounded sarcastic, but he hadn't meant it that way. "Come, share the details," said Insyte. "We're all friends here, aren't we? What struggles did you face? Did you feel victorious, or just barely survive?"
Sparktail stared at Insyte uncomfortably. Were they really friends? Years of unpleasant memories surfaced. No, that was the Umbreon, not the Flareon. Yet, of the council members, Lyther and Insyte unnerved Sparktail the most. They seemed so different, nothing like the Pokemon he remembered.
Lyther and Roathaus were staring at the space where Sparktail's sword should be. Did they know what happened to his sword? "Some- some of them didn't seem very good," said the Raichu after a moment. "The skilled ones, though... were very skilled."
"Blusabre," said Roathaus, his voice deep and ominous. The Raichu blinked, wondering if he was missing out on something. "He is a disgraced Lucario, a rogue warrior. He was banished to Iron Island by his own kind twenty years ago for his vicious crimes. Describe his fighting style, Sparktail."
The Raichu tried to think back to Blusabre; his memories of the two Lilycove skirmishes had blurred into each other slightly, and he was sure now that quite a few details had been switched. "I didn't fight him myself," replied Sparktail finally. "He seemed... very well trained. He was very deadly, and very fast. His sword seemed to cut through anything that he attacked."
The council tittered amongst themselves at this. Lyther looked satisfied by Sparktail's assessment of Blusabre's sword, which Insyte and Torrid both scoffed at. "Sparktail, tell the council of the Raichu who looks like you," said Shock after a momenlt. "Tell them about the Omega warrior."
No. Not that. Omega was the last thing he wanted to think about. But he had no choice. The Raichu took another deep breath and began with the Zangoose and the Lairon in Verdanturf, slowly working his way through each encounter with the mysterious warrior.
Rush's eyes gleamed as the Raichu finished. "Thank you for your testimony, Sparktail" said the Swampert, gesturing to an open seat between Insyte and Lyther. "Now please, join us. We're just getting started, and it might help if you offered what advice you could, based on your experiences in the field."
Sparktail hesitated. He didn't want to keep Thalia waiting, and he dreaded what the council members thought of him. But again, something in Rush's voice suggested that he had no choice. The Raichu frowned as he joined them at the table; this chair was Slick's old seat.
"Now let's get back to Ever Grande," said the Swampert, glancing up and down the table. Lyther and Ector exchanged glances. He gestured to the large sheet of paper spread across the table; squinting at it, Sparktail realize it was a map of Ever Grande. "Let's discuss offensive strategies, shall we?"
At the far end, Heroc groaned. "It's fairly obvious, what we need to do," said the Breloom as the council turned to stare at him. "We simply fly in on Skarmories, seize strategic locations, and capture the temple. From the air, we have the advantage."
"With all due respect, I feel you have not paid attention to my fleet's reports," said Admiral Ector, sounding insulted. "The entire Iron Fleet could not mount an effective assault, given the sheer range of the anti-air Magmortars--"
"But I think there's something to what he says," said Insyte, setting his forepaws on the table. The others, including Torrid, stared at the Flareon as he pointed to the map. "The Retrievers aren't afraid to fight. If we can't go by air, we'll climb. We'll scale the rocky cliffs and advance directly into enemy territory. The citadel will be free by morning!"
Sparktail stared at Insyte, startled by his fiery words. "Your plan will be the death of us all," said Lyther darkly, rising to his feet. "Have you given no thought to the sentries who roam the coasts? The density of the Red Dragon's defenses? The sheer exhaustion of such rugged terrain?"
Insyte glanced to Torrid. "We'll provide weapons and armor," said the Flareon, looking Lyther in the eye. "Garchomp will expect a scheme; perhaps, all we need to win is a direct assault. Clean, honest battle. The point is, these Pokemon want freedom, and they want vengeance on the Red Dragon. I say, let them have it!"
Sparktail sank uncomfortably in his seat as Lyther and Insyte stared at each other. "War is never clean," said Lyther. "We must find another way, one far more subtle. I say, we look for a passage through the waterfall, or a tunnel that leads under the Pokemon League-"
"And you think that won't risk lives?" demanded Insyte, silver-blue eyes blazing. "How long will your strategy last? How will you keep the soldiers supplied? We need a decisive victory. A siege will only weaken us while they remain strong."
"Quiet!" barked Shock, leaping up onto the conference table before Lyther could reply. "Scaling cliffs? Secret passages? This is ridiculous. We know from Indigo Plateau that Skarmories are the only way to move several hundred Pokemon from one island to the next."
"Get down, Shock," said Ector sharply. "At Indigo, we had the advantages of surprise, numbers, and open terrain. But Ever Grande is a natural fortress; too many ledges, too many advantageous points. And if the Iron Fleet could outrace the anti-air Magmortars, we would have taken Hoenn far more quickly."
" We'll just have to fly in at night, Admiral," said Torrid, looking to Shock and Ector. "For one thing, there's only five Magmortars, and they're diurnal creatures. It's not very easy to shoot a Skarmory out of the sky when you can't see anything, now, is it?"
"Do you think we alone can see as night sees?" whispered Lyther, staring down at the table. "That our enemies are powerless without the sun's rays to guide them? The Exile's slaves contain the taint of the beast. He who fights by night will die by night."
There was a long silence as the others stared blankly at Lyther. "He means that they have night vision," said Rush from the Champion's seat. "And he's right. If their cannons can be modified, so can their eyes. Where are the Magmortars stationed, Ector?"
The others held their breath as the Skarmory squinted down at the map. "Logically, they would be waiting for us on this crag, because it's the best place to land," said Ector after a moment, tapping a place on the northwest coast with his wing. "Each would be about a hundred feet apart.
Sparktail stared at the map as Rush and several others around the table swore. "Two patrols will climb the cliffs and take out the Magmortars," said Insyte, eyes flickering. "Then, the rest of us can seize the island by Skarmory--"
"We're not scaling the cliffs," said Lyther adamantly. "There are five Magmortars. How will two patrols take down the Magmortars? I say, why face your opponent directly, when you can strike them from behind?"
Roathaus rose to his feet and slammed his fist on the table, his maw flickering with wisps of flame. He was immediately followed with a disdainful rebuttal from the Azumarill, who was promptly countered by Ector; then a rebuke from Insyte, a warning from Heroc, and a counterargument from Alpheral.
As the entire war council erupted into argument, Sparktail covered his rodent ears to shield them from the din. How could Rush and the others possibly do or decide anything in this sort of chaos? Getting to his paws as quietly as he could, the Raichu glanced around the heated debate to make sure that no one was paying attention to him, then slipped outside.
"Here's what I can see," said Lute. "There's no doubt, Slick knew what he was doing when he trained you. Every one of your blows is lethal. As they say, a Leafeon's as sturdy as oak. It's just that you're either too far from your opponent, or too close. Leaf-blades seem better suited for piercing, not slashing."
"Yes," replied the Leafeon irritably, her leaves ruffling. She staring down at her paws as the Absol took her swords and examined them. It made her nervous that Shensing and Hador weren't in her paws... no, that Lute had them. "Get to the point."
He looked at her for a moment. "Well then, why don't you just launch your leaf-blades like arrows?" said the Absol, linking the two ends of her swords together, the pommels clicking into place. "Look. Now you have a bow!"
That caught her attention. She stared at the joined blades, astonished. "How did you do that?" protested Thalia as Lute locked braces around the linked handle with a few careful clawstrokes. "You mean that I could've used my swords like that all along?!"
The Absol planted the sword-bow at Thalia's paws. "See these rounded notches?" he said, gesturing to the groove at the blade's tip. "Only blade-bows have those. The edges are blunted and the blades are thicker than normal swords; it's been tempered so that the user can pull the bow back. Surprised you haven't seen these before. Torrid probably didn't think you needed telling."
"Well--I've used regular bows before, but not this kind," said the Leafeon, pulling the bow over her back. For the moment, their past was forgotten. "It's been a while. But I could probably work with this." She tightened the straps, securing the bow to her harness, recalling her lesson: "It's got to be tight, or the bow will slip, and you'll shoot an arrow straight into the back of your head."
Following Lute across the field, Thalia approached the archery range. Nine targets were set up beyond the firing line in staggered rows of three, tightly stretched canvas tarps with painted black rings. "First group is ten yards," explained Lute. Second is thirty, and the third is fifty."
"Now! I know you said that you once had archery training, but if you haven't been practicing, you won't get very far," said Lute, pacing from side to side as Thalia stared towards the distant targets. "I'm going to assess your skills. You may approach the firing line."
Moving forward, the Leafeon strung her bow with a slender vine and pulled it taut, drawing back Shensing and Hador into a curve. She tested the string, grunting with effort; yes, it ought to hold for now. She couldn't help a small grin. Wait until Sparktail saw this.
Fetching a long, narrow leaf-blade from her paw, Thalia nocked her makeshift arrow, letting it extend past the joined blades to rest against her cheek. "Fifteen arrows, thirty seconds," said Lute as the Leafeon gazed past the firing line towards the thirty-yard target. "You may begin."
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes briefly to calm herself. "Keep your back straight," Slick would say. "It doesn't matter how sharp the arrow is. All that matters is how hard you pull!" It hadn't even been a year since Slick's traning. Her skills couldn't be too rusty, right? "Well, here goes nothing," she muttered.
Smiling, Thalia took a deep breath, and drew back the string with her tail, aiming the arrow towards the target's center. Ignoring Lute's stares and the swish of other Retrievers' bows, the Leafeon squinted towards the target, struggling to keep her arrow steady as every muscle in her body strained against her bowstring, then let her arrow fly.
The arrow sailed down the range and sank into the target's outermost ring. Disappointed, Thalia nocked another arrow, pulled back, and let fly as she heard the steady taps of Lute's claws like a metronome, her heart quavering.
Knowing her thirty seconds were ticking, Thalia had a third arrow nocked before she saw the second one miss. Her assessment became a cycle of steady-but-urgent actions-- nock, draw back, fire, follow-through, and repeat.
By the time Lute ordered her to stop, Thalia had only managed to release seven arrows out of fifteen. "Did I- did I... do good?" gasped Thalia as she sank to the ground.
The Absol rolled his eyes as he crossed the firing line, padding over to the target to gather up her arrows. "When was the last time you used a bow, Retriever?" he asked.
"Seven months... I prefer to throw leaf-blades," said the Leafeon, heavily. She stared down at the ground, disappointed at herself. "Was I really that bad?" Slick gave all his Pokemon special training, and it just so happened that hers had archery. Of course, her bows usually weren't made out of metal.
Returning with her arrows, Lute rolled his eyes and deposited the modified leaf-blades in a pile. "Get up," ordered the Absol, prodding her to her paws. "You scored twelve, which isn't too bad for the first time, but most of our archers score in the twenties. Your fellow Leafeons can score forty-eight."
He gestured with his horn down to a burly Leafeon with an oak bow by the fifty-yard targets, who landed a bull's-eye with a cry. Thalia's eyes narrowed. "Doesn't look like he's using a metal bow," grumbled the Leafeon, affronted at seeing were doing. "I've just got to get used to this. Wouldn't you struggle if you hadn't used your horn in a while?"
"Of course not! My horn is second nature to me," replied Lute. "So you're going to practice until archery is second nature to you. Oh, I don't expect you to land fifteen bull's-eyes, but you should be getting in the high fourties. Take a breather, then start shooting again."
Sometime during her second round, Thalia was joined by a rather disgruntled Sparktail, who looked about as stressed as she felt. "How're you doing?" asked the Raichu. "Lute being nice to you?"Come on. Focus on the target. Don't get distracted.
Drawing the string back with her tail, Thalia squinted at the ten-yard target, and let her arrow fly. "I... I'm doing all right," she replied through clenched teeth as her arrow sank into the target's outer-most ring. "Agh! Anyway, how was the council?"
"Oh... it was fine," mumbled the Raichu, looking up to the to the sunlit crater high overhead. Thalia's heart sank. Why couldn't he smile? "So, um... what're you going to do for the rest of the day?"
"Stuck on archery training until sundown," sighed the Leafeon as she drew back the string again, firing off another arrow. "If you want something special, it'll have to wait. But I'd be happy to do it." Letting her bowstring go slack, Thalia gave a restrained giggle. "Sorry, bad joke. What about you?"
He chuckled nervously. "Well--there's a patrol setting out for Mossdeep," replied Sparktail awkwardly, eyes darting around the archery range. "I... I think I'll join. Just want to, you know... clear my head a bit. "
Letting her bowstring go slack, the Leafeon got up onto her hind paws to nuzzle him. He hugged her back, savoring her warmth before letting go, but still did not smile. "So you're going to do some high-stakes training, eh?" said Thalia, smiling faintly, padding off to fetch her arrows. "Take care out there! I'll be waiting in the bunkers tonight."